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All-American Robots Excel in Superhuman Ballet Mécanique
Bad Boy of Music Still Shocks and Awes in Nation's Capital
(all photos © 2006 Charles Amirkhanian)

Charles Amirkhanian
Charles Amirkhanian reporting from Washington D.C. March 12, 2006, with National Gallery of Art handout and installation of instruments.

Although he was not per se a Dadaist, composer George Antheil (b. 1900, Trenton, NJ) was eminently familiar with the radical 20th Century art movements preceding his work in 1923-25 on the Ballet Mécanique, scored for multiple player pianos, doorbells, siren, airplane propellers, xylophones, tam-tam and bass drums. His library, at the time of his premature death in 1959 contained paperback versions of such publications as Marinetti's "Zang Tumb Tumb" sound poem and numerous copies of the periodical La Révolution Surrealiste, lovingly bound by a bookmaker into hardback form for safekeeping.

Charles Amirkhanian
New militant District of Columbia license plates: "Taxation without Representation."

So the inclusion of his music Ballet Mécanique, originally for the film by Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Dudley Murphy, in "Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris," the largest such exhibition ever shown in the U.S., comes as little surprise.  No other attempts at such radical Dada-like composition during the period 1910-1925 comes close in quality and invention to this work, in part because the other artists who wrote tried it were not composers but visual artists and poets.

Please refer to the excellent article by Gail Wein at the American Music Center's New Music Box site for basic details on the music and Paul Lehrman's painstaking and brilliant arrangement of it for non-human MIDI performance.

Paul Lehrman
Paul Lehrman, composer, arranger and mastermind of realizations of Antheil's original vision for 16 player pianos.

For this installation-style presentation, Eric Singer of LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots) worked with Lehrman to create solenoid-driven beaters and other devices to "play" the various instruments in Antheil's manic arsenal. The sound of airplane propellers is synthesized by cooling fans whose blades thwack against nylon strips that sound very realistic.  The xylophones, bass drums and gongs are struck by beaters that respond on cue at insensible speeds. And the overall precision of the performance is a thrilling experience, especially for those us familiar with live performances of the music that always have been slowed by the limitations of human performance capabilities.

One audience member suggested that the bass drum beaters were not sufficiently energetic to blast the sound out of the instrument and that something was lost in not seeing and hearing energetic humans driving the performance with the subtle variations in volume and expression that machines are not programmed to recreate. For me, however, the manic precision achieved in this version overrode that consideration, and I regretted only that the 25 minute work was telescoped to ten minutes for this installation-a case of life imitating commercial television. The music seemed to be over before it was started!  It definitely reduced the impact of the experience.

Charles Amirkhanian
Xylophone with solenoid-driven beaters to play inhumanly rapid passages.

A recording of the entire work is planned by Lehrman (watch for developments) and I look forward to hearing the music in its entirety performed in this arrangement wherever it takes place in the future. Standing in front of all those soundmakers certainly will be difficult to reproduce over loudspeakers from a CD, and the sweep of glissandi from left to right in the piano parts, nicely choreographed by Lehrman, is a visceral sensation to relish.

Charles Amirkhanian
Siren (lower left), tam-tam (above left), and doorbell cluster.

As for the Dada show itself, neatly arranged by city, there were many surprises, including substantial groupings of works by more obscure practitioners just now coming to light. And the 520 page catalogue by Leah Dickerman is beautifully organized and printed. The show runs through May 14th and performances of the Ballet Mécanique now are scheduled to run through the first week of May. The run has been extended past March 28th (the previous end date) due to overwhelmingly positive public response. Ballet Mécanique may be heard at 1pm and 4pm weekdays and weekends only at 1pm.

Charles Amirkhanian



More photos

Charles Amirkhanian
Fan adapted to imitate prop plane sounds. Red gaffers tape to soften blades. Brown reinforced nylon strips flapping against blades to produce sounds.
Charles Amirkhanian
Siren (lower left), tam-tam (above left), and doorbell cluster.
Charles Amirkhanian
Brown hanging nylon strips with fan.
Charles Amirkhanian
Gallery-goer awaiting first downbeat.
Charles Amirkhanian
Still waiting.
Charles Amirkhanian
View from floor above mezzanine.
Charles Amirkhanian
Exterior of National Gallery of Art on March 12, 2006.
Charles Amirkhanian
View from back of pianos as audience gathers for premiere.
Charles Amirkhanian
Fan imitating airplane propeller sounds (second view).
Charles Amirkhanian
Automated bass drum.
Charles Amirkhanian
Installation sign.